La Belle Vie: Walking, cycling and dining in France

From the true origins of France's favourite bread and how to survive a French traditional dinner to the country's best cycling routes, our new weekly newsletter La Belle Vie offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like a French person.

La Belle Vie: Walking, cycling and dining in France
Two amateur cyclists pass by snowcovered roadside in Tignes France in 2019. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP)

La Belle Vie is our regular look at the real culture of France – from language to cuisine, manners to films. This newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences or adding your email to the sign-up box in this article.

French baguettes have finally gotten the recognition they deserve. With 320 made every second in France, working out to just under half a baguette per person per day, the tradition behind baking these doughy delicacies has now been inscribed in UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage” list.

As all francophiles know, baguettes are a source of national pride in France. There are countrywide competitions to judge France’s best boulangers, who have to make the bread en respectant la tradition – using just four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt. After that it’s up to the skill of the baker to make a truly delicious baguette, a skill that will now forever be internationally recognised. 

Baguettes have been around for a long time in France, but you might be surprised to learn that they only officially got their name in 1920. The history is surprisingly blurry, with some pointing to baguettes as “Napoleon’s bread of war” and others referencing a certain Viennese bakery in central Paris in the late 1830s.

Let them eat bread: the origins of the French baguette

If you attend a French dinner party, you will almost certainly be offered some baguette to go along with your food, where it is is intended to be eaten alongside the main course. The entrée (appetizer or starter) is a course in itself during a traditional French dinner, and you definitely do not want to confuse it with the main course only to find yourself no longer hungry when the bœuf bourguignon comes along.

While it won’t go on forever, French dinners typically have several courses, with time for cheese being one of the most important. 

Apéro to digestif: What to expect from every step of a French dinner

While enjoying a meal with your French friends, you are bound to hear plenty of French – that is in part due to the fact that French dinners are deliberately spaced out so as to encourage more time for discussion and socialising.

The host or hostess might regale you with some explanations of the food on the table – perhaps how it was cooked or some crucial part of the recipe. However, you will hear plenty of other French expressions referencing food, particularly fruits and vegetables, during the moments when you are not holding a fork and knife too.

Food is very important to the French, and as such it appears in the French language quite a lot too. 

21 essential French fruit and vegetable expressions

To work up your appetite for your next French meal, why not consider a bit of cycling? Taking a bicycle around France is one of the best ways to enjoy the stunning countryside, fresh air, and adorable villages – all while getting a good workout. 

You may not have known that France has a huge network of car-free cycling paths winding across the country, and the rate of new paths being built and old ones expanded upon is ever increasing. You also do not have to worry about encountering too many steep hills, as many of the bike paths have been put in place of old rail lines – meaning you can benefit from a mostly flat cycling route. 

The Local spoke with cyclist and travel website editor Bella Molloy to hear about her favourite seven cycling routes across France.

Vineyards to canals: 7 of the best cycle routes in France

The reality is that not all of us are cyclists though. If you would prefer a nice stroll, France has a lot to offer in that regard too. One location stands out as a walker’s paradise.

Located off France’s northern coast, the island of Cezembre might not sound appealing at first, considering the fact that it is covered in unexploded munitions from World War II. 

But don’t worry – the island opened up for visitors in 2018 after extensive de-mining efforts allowed for the opening of a marked path. With incredible views over the Atlantic Ocean and a fascinating history to match, Cezembre is definitely worth the ‘must-see’ list for your next trip.

Mine-riddled French island becomes unlikely walkers’ paradise

Finally, if you are looking for another lesser known method of planning a tour de France, you could consider chasing down all of France’s many Statues of Liberty – or la Liberté éclairant le monde as she is known in French.

That’s right – the Lady Liberty standing tall outside of New York City is not the only one in the world. She has many replicas in France – 12 stand out among the pack, and one is even located on the Seine River in Paris.

From Bordeaux to Colmar, you can find find symbols of Franco-American friendship all over the country. 

Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

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La Belle Vie: Getting used to French social norms and travelling around France

From learning to complain like the French to social norms that take some time to get used to and where to hike and cycle in France, this week's La Belle Vie newsletter offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like a French person.

La Belle Vie: Getting used to French social norms and travelling around France

La Belle Vie is our regular look at the real culture of France – from language to cuisine, manners to films. This newsletter is published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to your newsletter preferences in “My account”.

Certain topics  are quintessentially French – and if you live here or visit regularly then at some point you will be impacted by a strike.

While you should certainly take some time to understand the official strike terminology (found HERE), perhaps the more important lexicon to learn would be how to complain like an authentic French person (because there tends to be a lot of that going around during les mouvements sociaux).

Eleven phrases that will let you complain like the French

Strikes are one French social norms that take foreigners time to get used to – especially those from countries like the United States where large-scale industrial action is less common.

Listen to the team at The Local talk about France’s strike culture in our podcast Talking France – download it HERE or listen on the link below.

But there are some other uniquely French experiences that tend to require a bit of practice on the behalf of the foreigner living in or visiting France – like remembering which cheek to kiss first during la bise. Though, if you mix this up, it will definitely give you a funny story to tell both your friends. I have made this mistake before, and can attest that accidental lip-locking gets a good laugh from both anglophones and French people alike.

Speedos to kissing: Six French social norms that take some getting used to

Many foreigners in France tend to feel lost about one particular social norm – tipping. To get an idea of how English-speakers living in France handle this question, The Local conducted a survey to understand which scenarios should involve a tip, and the ones that should not. 

Interestingly enough, a lot of readers of The Local noticed that the longer they stayed in France, the more their tipping habits changed. Some found they tipped more when travelling home, while others found themselves not tipping at all while in France. 

‘We tip less in France than in the US’ – readers reveal who they tip, and how much

One aspect of French life that remains shocking to me (in the best sense) is the ease with which you can travel by train (when there isn’t a strike on).

Within France, it is often easier to get from one French city to another by train, rather than by plane or car. Other European cities are also accessible by train from France, which means you can save money that you would have spent on tolls and fuel, or the time you would have ticked away while in line for security at the airport, by travelling by rail. One huge benefit to rail travel is the fact that you can bring all the liquids you want on board – no need to worry about your perfume, shampoo or wine bottle getting tossed out.

Six European cities within 7 hours by train

If you prefer to travel by foot or bicycle, you are in luck. France is full of “Grand Randonées”, local walks, and cycling routes. It is even estimated that there are 100,000 kilometres of walking trails in France, crossing the country in all directions.

Hiking and biking in France can offer spectacular views, lungfuls of fresh air and a beauty-filled and accessible way to keep fit and healthy. If you are starting to think about your spring or summer holidays, take a look at these 13 French hiking and cycling paths. The Local has a compiled a list with options from all over the country from Corsica to Brittany and along the Mediterranean.

13 of France’s best hiking and cycling routes

As you make your way through France’s regions, you will undoubtedly come across plenty of different, unique regional drinks, cheeses, and meals.

The French are very proud of their gastronomy, so much so that the country developed a labelling system so that customers would be able to buy certain agricultural products – from vegetables to cheeses and wines – safe in the knowledge that its production and processing have been carried out in a particular geographical area (the terroir) and using recognised and traditional know-how. 

What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

One product that often sports an AOC label in France is fromage. Dozens of French cheeses are registered as AOCs – 63 to be exact, but there are far more than 63 types of cheese in France.

Cheese plays such a significant role in French culture and cuisine that there are eight general categories – or families – for designating them. Beyond that, it gets a bit complicated as new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented.

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?